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regular-article-logo Saturday, 15 June 2024

Signs of trouble

Political ideology is a complicated, cerebral thing that intellectuals discuss and debate. However, for the typical voter, it turns out to be what a party’s programmes mean to him/her

Anup Sinha Published 17.05.24, 06:47 AM
Belief matters

Belief matters Sourced by the Telegraph

It is election time and as a citizen one has to make choices and exercise rights. First, one has to decide on the choice of a party or a candidate. Second, one has to decide whether to exercise one’s right to vote or not. One could refrain from voting. Or one could end up not voting for any person at all by choosing to press the NOTA button. There are many steps involved in arriving at the final step. Like all complex decisions, one does a mental analysis and arrives at, what might be termed as, the optimal solution. One must take note of the ideology of the candidate or that of the party that the candidate represents, the personal integrity of the individual, the candidate’s ability to communicate, and the person’s awareness of the local problems of the constituency. It is important to have a take on the candidate’s political affiliation and what that party’s programme is for building the future of the nation.

Political ideology is a complicated, cerebral thing that intellectuals discuss and debate. However, for the typical voter, it turns out to be what a party’s programmes mean to him/her. Usually, these are short-term problems that a voter faces; problems that need resolution. For instance, if the voter is anxious about employment, what does a party say about job creation? Or, if the voter is a business person, what does the party’s programme or promised policies say about the ease of doing business? Finally, the voter might also be interested in knowing what the candidate’s party’s stands are on common problems like inadequate opportunities for quality education, lack of affordable and quality healthcare, or the presence of gender discrimination. Ideology can have deeper implications too, such as what a party thinks about diversity and freedom, about secularism, about the idea of the nation that the party wants to propagate. These are all remarkably significant issues, but very few voters have the ability, or sometimes even the desire, to fathom one’s own positions on these issues.

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A more obvious and perhaps easier aspect of political choice is to try and assess the candidate’s personality traits. Is the candidate a good communicator? Does the person have a strong reputation for honesty? Is the individual a hard worker? Does the person have knowledge about local problems and are there any solutions being offered? How much importance is the person attaching to problems that the voter perceives to be important — such as issues related to jobs, incomes and livelihoods? Is there adequate information on these? There are also the direct-connect rewards that a voter may assign to his/her choice. How many times has the candidate visited the locality, come to the doorstep, made attempts to distribute gifts, or made specific promises about the future? A few voters may be cynical or so hard-pressed that token gifts of money or even liquor may be enough to convince them to vote for a particular candidate.

Political parties try to address these issues by taking a number of actions. Typically, the party publishes an election manifesto describing its achievements, programmes and policies, both existing and future ones, and its stands on specific, important issues of concern. Only a handful read these documents. Hence, the party organises rallies, public meetings, and door-to-door campaigns with a shortened version of the manifesto and a brief thumb-sketch of the candidate. The party tries to maximise the visibility of the candidate along with some star campaigners. Direct contact is supplemented by the use of media — print, electronic and social. The media helps create new narratives about the party and the candidate, narratives that are supposed to resonate with the concerns of the typical voter.

The above description is based on an abstract analysis of the choice process. In reality, however, the decisions are taken based on highly incomplete information, imperfect outreach methods, and very subjective judgements about the candidate and the party. Most voters have a preconceived liking for, or dislike, a party. It is like supporting a football club. One does not know the exact reasons but the bonding is deep, to the extent of it being totally irrational. This is what one refers to as a polarised electorate. In such a situation, the candidate is irrelevant and the party supreme, or sometimes one strong leader is the sole consideration, as was the case with Indira Gandhi and, now, with Narendra Modi. For hardcore Marxist supporters, the party is important, not so much the person representing the party. Once the party, or the iconic leader, is identified, the programmes and the policies of that party are deemed necessarily good for the nation. These are the highly committed voters. The relevance of the candidate has diminished in India as one is not sure how long the person elected will continue to remain in the party. Switching sides has become common and is now accepted as a feature of Indian democracy.

One might raise the question that electoral swings happen, governments are overturned, and voters do change parties. There is enough evidence about the existence of the uncommitted voter who decides on the merits of the contextual situation. Indeed, when one is very upset about past electoral outcomes and the performance of a party in government, a typical voter switches sides — usually to seek revenge against those who betrayed his/her cause. The other deciding factor in electoral outcomes is the entry of new, young voters who participate in the electoral process for the first time. They have the numbers to affect results.

Those voters who analyse and overthink are unlikely to find any candidate suitable for being his/her representative due to many reasons; lack of integrity, poor past records, negligence of the constituency and its concerns and, above all, self-seeking fickleness regarding changing parties after elections. These voters have not lost faith in democracy but would like to see a new breed of candidates who might be able to repair the eroded democratic process or perhaps articulate a new ideology that is inclusive, fair and tolerant. Then there are those who do not vote at all. They are supremely indifferent, or more likely, have lost all faith in a sterile electoral process.

The dance of democracy is celebrated the most when voters turn out to vote. It does not matter who they vote for. The participation defines the strength of the system — even if the typical voter votes randomly, or according to, say, for a woman voter, what the husband said, or what the family or the clan dictates. Democracy survives on a minimum set of beliefs. There must be a belief that one can vote governments out of power or vote in a new party. The next belief is that those who lose do not bring out their guns and knives and their fat purses; the losers accept defeat decisively. Unfortunately, the last two fundamental beliefs are being shaken in India. The buying and selling of legislators with big money are sufficient to help a party retain power even if it loses in elections. It may well happen in the not-too-distant future that India will drop the fig leaf of democratic elections. The exercise may no longer be deemed necessary for power. Discernable signs are emerging.

Anup Sinha is former Professor of Economics, IIM Calcutta

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